In addition to the difficulty of developing management techniques for a wide-ranging animal, the scientists face unique challenges conducting their research. Cuba has limited infrastructure and resources. University of Havana researchers can't just hop over to Cabañas whenever they need to—few have cars and fuel can be hard to come by. Also, scientists in the U.S. and Cuba find it challenging to communicate, as e-mail can be slow and sporadic. An American scientist may suggest a Web site resource to a colleague in Cuba only to discover Cubans can't access it. Travel restrictions imposed by both governments create delays, a forced flexibility familiar to Cubans. The U.S. government restricts U.S. scientists from training their Cuban counterparts but allows mutually beneficial exchanges of information, turning the normal process of collaboration into something more complex. A report in Oceanography in 2012 outlined these and other challenges, including funding restrictions that prevent U.S. scientists from using any government funds on any expenses related to the initiative. (This report also elaborates marine science in Cuba and other collaborative efforts.)
Field work is also hampered by complicated, time consuming processes to gain permission from the Cuban government to use global positioning systems and satellite tags. Instead, the researchers employ conventional fin tags bearing a number and instructions in English and Spanish about where to return a recovered tag. "All you get from those are point A to point B, and you might get back 3 percent of them," Hueter says. In contrast, a satellite tag shows the animal's movements from point of tagging through the last transmission, along with water temperature, depth and other data.
But the research challenges pale in comparison with the potential payoff, say those involved. "What we're really doing is developing a model in the Gulf of Mexico that can be exported to other areas of the world where stocks move throughout multiple jurisdictions, which is practically everywhere," Hueter says. "That's the greater importance of our work."
Cuba by the numbers:
- 4,800-plus kilometers of coastline
- 4,000-plus islets and keys
- 18 percent of Cuba's ocean shelf designated as protected area
- 10 percent annual increase in visitors to Cuba in the coming years; more should the U.S. embargo be lifted
- 54 species of sharks
- 300-plus species of birds
- 18,000 species of insects
- 38,000 species of crustaceans
- 1,500 species of mollusks
- 6,700 species of plants